When should I talk to my child about sex?

DEAR DOCTOR K:

When should I start talking to my child about sex? And what topics should I discuss?

DEAR READER:

Many parents are uncomfortable talking about sex with their kids, but they know the day will, and should, come. They often anxiously prepare in advance what they will say if their child asks a question about sex.

There’s an old joke about a young boy who asks his father, “Where did I come from?” His father says to himself, “OK, the time is here,” braces himself, and then spends several minutes talking about sperm, eggs, the uterus, labor and delivery, etc. The boy, with a puzzled look on his face, replies, “Funny. Johnny says he comes from San Francisco.”

Although you may not realize it, you have been teaching your child about sexuality for years. For example, you helped him learn the correct terms for the parts of the body, including genitalia.

My pediatrician colleagues at Harvard Medical School advise that parents should discuss sex with their child before he or she enters puberty, typically by age 8 or 9. When and where do you start? Often you do not have to start. Like the boy in the joke, your child will most likely come to you with questions first. Answer them at your child’s level, with short, clear explanations.

If your child does not come to you with questions, you may need to bring up the subject. You could start by asking how much he knows about something and see where the conversation goes. For example, “What do you know about how babies are made?”

Once you have opened the conversation, it will get easier. Over time, you’ll want to cover a lot of ground. Do it little by little. Don’t overwhelm your child with too many facts all at once.

Consider the next stage in your child’s development. For example, don’t wait until puberty to talk with your child about body changes or menstruation.

Here is a list of topics my pediatrician colleagues recommend that you should discuss with your child:

(1) PUBERTY. Discuss the body changes your child should expect. Parents of both girls and boys should discuss menstruation.

(2) HUMAN REPRODUCTION. Discuss the body parts related to sexuality, including their actual names and functions. Discuss sexual intercourse, how babies are made and how babies are born.

(3) MASTURBATION. Teach your child that masturbation and self-exploration are normal parts of sexual development.

(4) BIRTH CONTROL. Discuss the purpose of birth control. Explain the basic types and how each prevents pregnancy. If you do not believe in birth control, say that, too.

(5) SEXUALLY TRANSMITTED DISEASES. Teach your child how these diseases are spread and can be prevented.

(6) HOMOSEXUALITY. Teach your child about different sexual orientations.

A series of matter-of-fact discussions with your kids can give them the information they need — and also arm them against the misinformation they likely will hear from others.